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India's Policy Towards China Must Leverage Latter's Two-Front Situation

India must proactively convey to China that the two-front problem is as much a challenge to China as it is to India.

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While a ‘two-front’ dilemma has posed a critical security challenge to India for quite some time, China fears a similar situation, which hasn’t received enough attention within Indian strategic circles.

China first grew anxious about a developing two-front threat in the early 1950s. After the Communist Party of China won the civil war against the Guomindang (GMD) nationalist government and forced the latter to flee to Taiwan in 1949, it feared a US-backed GMD invasion from the east. On its western front along the Himalayas, China was wary of Indian interference in Tibet and accused it of colluding with the US to instigate secessionist tendencies during the 1950s and early 1960s.

This vulnerability was acknowledged by Pan Tsuli, then Chinese ambassador to India, in his demarche of 16 May 1959 to the Indian Foreign Secretary. Referring to the US, he wrote that “the enemy of the Chinese people lies in the East…China’s main attention and policy of struggle are directed to the east…and not to India.”

He noted that “China will not be so foolish as to antagonize the United States in the east and again to antagonize India in the west.”

Nehru called the Chinese remarks ‘objectionable’ and ‘discourteous’. India’s harsh rebuff, coupled with the subsequent worsening of India-China relations over Tibet, and their inability to reach a solution on the border question, further intensified Chinese suspicion of Indian intent.

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A Glimpse at the Military History

The period of heightened Chinese anxiety around the two-front threat in the 1950-60s also saw a spike in clashes along the border, making it the most volatile period in the history of bilateral relations. The succeeding years witnessed a large number of Chinese incursions, including the forceful occupation of Khurnak Fort by the PLA in July 1958 and detaining of an Indian patrol party in September 1958. Subsequent incursions were recorded in the eastern and middle sectors such as Lohit (Arunachal Pradesh), Lapthal and Sangch Malla (Uttarakhand.)

India’s timid response to these incidents perhaps emboldened the Chinese to become violent along the border. The first deadly border clash occurred in Longju in August 1959, when two Indian soldiers were killed. This was followed by another incident in October 1959 when several Indian police personnel on patrol duty were killed near the Kongka Pass. It is worth noting that the border turned volatile immediately after the subtle threat contained in Pan Tsuli’s May 1959 demarche went unattended. The tensions along the LAC finally culminated in the war of 1962 and eventually succeeded in enforcing India’s two-front threat perception.

Consequently, India turned defensive, which became apparent in its policy towards troop deployment and border infrastructure along the LAC. After the war, Nehru assured then-US President Kennedy that India would not take any action to provoke China.

Lt Gen (Retd.) H.S. Panag has pointed out that India’s military debacle was such that the political leadership did not “dare to deploy our army on the LAC for the next 24 years - a complete breakaway from the audacious ‘Forward Policy’.”

China again tried to capitalise on India’s vulnerability when the latter was at war with Pakistan in 1965. It accused India of violating the Sikkim-Tibet border by maintaining military installations on the Tibetan side. On 19 September, the PLA kidnapped and killed three Indian soldiers from across the LAC near Tsaskur in Ladakh. Two years later, in September-October 1967, China engaged in border skirmishes with Indian troops in Nathu La and Cho La in Sikkim. Thus, from the mid-1950s to the late 1960s, China’s heightened two-front threat perception coincided with recurrent border clashes with India.

As the 1960s ended, the US softened its approach towards China, thereby attenuating the latter’s conundrum. The threat began to subside around the ‘70s, following growing divergence between India and the US, and the Sino-Soviet split in the ‘60s, which led to increasing US-China convergence in 1971. Normalisation in US-China relations reached full fruition in 1979 and subsequently calmed China’s insecurity.

The Resurgence of China’s Insecurity

The end of the Cold War and the century that followed witnessed the US recalibrate its strategic policy in Asia and tilt towards India. Among various drivers was India’s potential as a counterweight to China. Consequently, China was concerned over the evolving South Asian security architecture centred around US-India cooperation.

Around 2008, two developments – the conclusion of the India-US Nuclear Cooperation Deal (and the subsequent NSG waiver), which ushered in an era of deepened defence and security cooperation between the two countries, as well as India’s push to upgrade infrastructure along the LAC – threatened to revive Chinese two-front insecurity.

Commenting on US-India joint military drills in 2020, Fudan University Professor Lin Minwang warned of the two countries undertaking “joint action against China in the Himalayas.” Observers in China also rued about India’s border infrastructure upgradation as an irritant in the relations.

Subsequently, especially since 2010, the LAC has witnessed a sustained rise in incidents of LAC violations. Compared to the period between 2010-2014, which witnessed a total of 1612 Chinese transgressions, the period between 2016-2019 saw the number increase to 1625. Notable incidents included PLA transgressions in Daulat Beg Oldi (2013) and Chumar (2014), which appeared more serious in nature. The issue became so serious that the Indian Defence Ministry acknowledged the burgeoning threat from increased Chinese transgressions in their 2016 annual report, for the first time after 13 years.

Besides, Chinese scholars have lately viewed the US’ Indo-Pacific Strategy with India as a key partner as a containment strategy aimed at China. There is a fear that since India lacks strategic autonomy, India could well become a US pawn. This perception enforces their view that the LAC is another theatre of US-China competition. In that sense, the Chinese strategy appears to coerce India to become more non-aligned and freer from US influence, by applying pressure on the LAC. The 2020 Ladakh clashes should be seen in this context.

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Conclusion

A correlation can be made between the increasing volatility along the India-China border and China’s rising threat perception of a two-front challenge. It is an old pattern repeating itself. China has sought to use instability along the border to outsource its two-front challenge to India. Moreover, China’s heightened assessment of its capability and India’s corresponding incapacity to respond to its own two-front challenge act as incentives. It seems to believe that if enough pressure is applied, the burden of maintaining peace along the border can be placed on India’s shoulders, absolving it of responsibility.

However, unlike in the 1950-60s, it is clear that the Chinese strategy since 2008 has not yielded desired results. It has instead strengthened India’s resolve to seek external and internal balancing against China. In this context, the Ladakh crisis of 2020 appears to be part of a Chinese plan to regain its advantage by threatening to raise the costs of protecting the border for India and thereby restore the lost equilibrium.

Given that none of the three developments discussed — deepening India-US defence relations, India’s border infrastructure upgrade, and the asymmetry between India and China — will change in the near future, India must remain prepared for increased border tensions.

Finally, India must proactively convey to China that the two-front problem is as much a challenge to China as it is to India. The burden of maintaining peace along the LAC must therefore rest equally on both countries. Reminding China of its vulnerability would also allow India to leverage the former’s two-front situation to redress its similar concern against China and Pakistan.

This article is an excerpt from the author’s paper China’s Two-Front Conundrum: A Perspective on the India-China Border Situation first published by the Observer Research Foundation. Read the full paper here.

(Amit Kumar is a Research Analyst with the Indo-Pacific Studies Programme at the Takshashila Institution. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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